Los Angeles Theater Review: NEVA (Kirk Douglas Theatre, South Coast Rep, and La Jolla Playhouse)

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by Ella Martin on June 13, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional

FOGGY BUT FASCINATING

Neva by Guillermo Calderón opens like a Beckett play, with a woman sitting alone in the darkness.  Once she is illuminated, she begins to speak with the pace and urgency of a train, hardly stopping for breath, her movements fervent but Ella Martin's Stage and Cinema review of NEVA - Kirk Douglas Theatre, South Coast Rep, La Jolla Playhouseeconomical.

This woman is Olga Knipper (Sue Cremin), seething with grief in the wake of her husband Anton Chekhov’s death.  Physically present but emotionally empty, Olga vacillates verbally from one extreme to another without being able to truly act.  Ever since her husband’s death she has discovered, “I do not feel anymore.”

After failing on a few lines from a speech, she launches into a tirade against herself.  She rails in disgust for the sub-par performance she will give, and for the time after when friends and rivals will come back to her dressing room to shower her with back-handed compliments that she will receive with grateful timidity “like a wet puppy.”

In the midst of her active reverie she is joined by Aleko (Ramón de Ocampo), whom she quickly draws into her ruminations.  After a while, he interrupts her with news from the outside: it is a bloody Sunday, the Bloody Sunday in fact, when unarmed peaceful protesters were shot and killed by the Imperial Army.  This moment introduces the key dramatic question of the play: what is the relationship between Ella Martin's Stage and Cinema review of NEVA - Kirk Douglas Theatre, South Coast Rep, La Jolla Playhouseinside and outside, truth and fiction, art and reality?  What should it be?

Another principle idea explored is that of the actor-as-archetype.  Olga and Masha (Ruth Livier) seem written to parallel, though with a more overtly articulated psychology, Chekhov’s grande-dame Arkadina and ingenue Nina from The Seagull.   All four are consumed by their desire to be great and obsessed with art and the theater, to a great extent ignoring the challenges of real life.  Why are they compelled to perform characters for others, yet unwilling be present for themselves?  Perhaps part of the answer to this question lies in Olga and Masha’s unhealthy, self-acknowledged degree of self-loathing.  Aleko also copes with the artist’s dilemma, questioning Ella Martin's Stage and Cinema review of NEVA - Kirk Douglas Theatre, South Coast Rep, La Jolla Playhousewhether he should join the massacre outside or stay safely behind the theater walls; in the end, he realizes to his surprise and devastation that he cannot go.  As Masha yells, “I hate myself for being an actress!”

The performers are versatile.  Cremin, Livier and de Ocampo play three psychologically flamboyant actors, struggling to find their characters and also themselves in the rehearsal studio.  They seem to have no sense of privacy, sharing their deepest secrets with one another in the blink of an eye, all as a means to an end: the perfect performance.  The lack of boundaries leads to messy personal situations, as when Aleko and Olga repeatedly seduce one another in front of Masha, who covers her ears and bends over on the lip of the little, claustrophobic stage, trying to block it all out.

Ella Martin's Stage and Cinema review of NEVA - Kirk Douglas Theatre, South Coast Rep, La Jolla PlayhouseFor the play’s artistically successful dramatic moments, however, there are as many that are disconnected and false.  The at times blatantly hollow, outside-only physical performances appear designed to prevent the audience from engaging in any emotional wallowing.  Writer-Director Guillermo Calderón gives himself the difficult task — and one which he succeeds at — of at once entertaining a crowd and forcing it to acknowledge the irresponsibility of going to the theater to feel when there is so much happening in the real world that deserves attention.  “People are starving!” Masha yells in desperation.

The play rambles a bit, with highs and lows that come seemingly from nowhere.  After it ends, you may see it as a more sexually-liberated version of Terrence McNally’s Master Class combined with Haskell Wexler’s fourth-Ella Martin's Stage and Cinema review of NEVA - Kirk Douglas Theatre, South Coast Rep, La Jolla Playhousewall-breaking Medium Cool.  It is a complicated, unorthodox combination.

Ruth Livier’s closing monologue is an impressive feat, both in the performance and as a text.  She instantly manages to click into an unquestionable authenticity that makes a polemic moving. Overwhelmed and exhausted by her deep aggravation with the world, she throws herself off the stage, saying, “Don’t die, my Anton, write me a few last words.”

A single, unassuming rehearsal light illuminates the entire production, manipulated by the actors as they demand attention and pull focus.  In the closing moments of the play, Aleko shines the light on us.  The gesture seems to ask, silently but intently: now, what are you going to do about all of this?

photos by Craig Schwartz

Neva
a Center Theater Group, South Coast Rep and La Jolla Playhouse co-production
Kirk Douglas Theatre June 11-16, 2013 http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
South Coast Repertory June 19-23, 2013 http://www.scr.org/
La Jolla Playhouse June 26-30, 2013 http://www.lajollaplayhouse.org/

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Rita June 17, 2013 at 12:56 pm

Ella Martin’s review echoes my own. The hollow constant of Olga made me wonder if she was truly a great actress. Layers of truth exist in all characters and an audience needs to be drawn into the questions presented.
The opinion that acting on a stage is trifling when the world is in chaos brings into question “what is art?”
Given the passion of the last extended plea the emptiness of the play rang out, too.

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Sylvia Proudfoot June 18, 2013 at 6:41 am

The most ingenious play that I ever saw. I was so impressed with the switch from one point of view to and other.
I enjoyed every minute of it.

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